Q: Please introduce us with the team behind this project. What led them to become interested in this kind of project?
Aet Ader: I met Hannes Praks for the first time a year from now, just after he had been appointed the head of the Interior Architecture department of Estonian Academy of Arts. As the location of our meeting happened to be the forests, I ended up complaining about how boring the forest infrastructure in Estonia is. The Forest Management Centre hiking trails and resting spots system is very nice, but why do we have to follow the peasant hut aesthetic when creating new objects? Couldn’t we use the power of thought of architects just a little bit, when it comes to spatial interventions in the woods?
Couple of weeks later I got a call from Praks who announced that the next new group of freshmen will be focussing on the forest, and he invited us to tutor the student group. All of us at the b210 architecture office were very intrigued by the challenge – finally a chance to interpret the minimal space created in the forests! We invited a number of friends to inspire the students (filmmakers, IT experts, designers, architects, art critics) who all delivered one lecture in connection with solitude, the forest, hiking, perception of body and space, etc. We had a legendary Estonian engineer to consult the students on the construction side.
When we were halfway through the programme, Estonian designers Ahti Grünberg and Tõnis Kalve joined the team for the practical reason that the students had to also take a furniture design course at the same time. This flexibility, joining up the two courses provided stronger projects in the end – projects that had both a strong idea, and at the same time paid great attention to detail and materials, wooden detailing, hinges, clasps, textiles.
Q: What inspired the idea of the megaphones?
Hannes Praks: The megaphones turned out as megaphones only at the very end of the course that our group of twelve freshmen students was taking. Before arriving at the final solution, they spent half a year thinking about the concept of a ‘forest library’. The idea of the forest library originates from Estonian writer Valdur Mikita, who is well known for interpreting wild nature and the history of impact of contemporary men. Birgit’s proposal for the final project stood right out by clearly and nicely diverging from the initial task. In the end, even the tutors of the group understood that building a library without heating and any security in Estonian climate would be a bit of a stupid idea. Birgit’s intelligent solution – to replace the literal reading in the forests with reading the audioscape of the forests – saved the whole project. I’m not sure even Birgit herself is aware of how she arrived at the succulent idea, but we in the Estonian Academy of Arts interior architecture department would like to believe that the thorough apprehension of nature and daring problem-solving stems from our somewhat unorthodox teaching methods. The whole group had to spend a five-day drawing course in the middle of the coldest January in deep woods, in a remote forest ranger hut. Some time later, we sent the students to London for 48 hours – but with no money and no phones on locations – as an observation and survival training. We sincerely believe that these experimental and in part, surely extreme measures pave the road to fabulous solutions.
Q How do you intend viewers to interact with the work? (And, since its installation, have you seen viewers interacting with the project in ways you didn’t originally imagine?)
Birgit Õigus, the author of the idea, thought mostly of three concepts, primary of which is the listening. But as the megaphones are built to be waterproof, they could also accommodate a group of three hikers and offer protection from the elements. In addition to framing the audioscape, the structure also frames the visual. Once inside the megaphone, the hiker would see a wide view of the forest, while the narrower end of the object focuses on a bush of blueberries. During the opening ceremony, the megaphones functioned perfectly as tiny stages. Two of the megaphones housed performing musicians, and the audience in the middle of the installation, where in my opinion you could perceive a powerful yet serene and clear stereophonic and acoustic effect.
Q: Can you explain how they work to amplify forest sounds (or music)?
Hannes Praks: We placed the three megaphones at such a distance and at a suitable angle, so at the centre of the installation, sound feed from all three directions should create a unique merged surround sound effect.
Aet Ader*: Materials-wise – the installation is made of larch and the boarding is cut at the right angle to amplify the focussing effect even more. We did have to to consult an acoustics engineer to get it right.
Q: Can you describe the experience of being in the middle of the installation?
Aet Ader: The megaphones take the hiker by a surprise – it’s a shift in scale, an unexpected, absurdly large object in the tranquil deep woods. It’s an extremely symbolic reference to the sense of hearing and to the process of listening. The reference itself might be enough to inspire people to listen to the cosmos of the forest. When you pay attention you might notice the way the sounds are amplified at the intersection of the three megaphones. You can sit down comfortably in each of the megaphones – the sides of the megaphone offer support for your back at the right angle and frame the sky on one side and moss and blueberries on the other. The installation shakes the perspective. It seems to me that in the world that’s spinning faster and faster, the secret really lies in simple methods such as focussing – erasing the background noise and the unnecessary, framing it out.
Q: What are the architectural components that every contemporary architecture lover should pay attention to (materials, shapes, rhythm solutions, etc.)?
Aet Ader: Every traveller could commit to the moment. I would say that hikers take to the forests to perceive the slowness of the woods and specific risks that the contemporary urban environment does not offer. Spending time in an unusual environment enhances your ability to focus. I’d even suggest going to the spot alone – to hear your own thoughts. Materials-wise – the installation is made of larch and the boarding is sawn at the right angle to amplify the focussing effect even more. We consulted an acoustics engineer to get it right.
Q: Why did you decide to create those gigantic wooden megaphones?
Hannes Praks: A year ago, over at the interior architecture department of the Estonian Academy of Arts, we started a course called ‘public forest library’ for our first-years. In the initial stages, we sent the students into the forest for a few days, accompanied by an acclaimed Estonian author and semiotician, to look for input and inspiration for a possible concept.
The forest seminar failed utterly, because after half a day of intellectual chatter, a helicopter started to circle the forest where the students were located and a moment later, the woods were filled with the police. The reason – a local granny had gone mushroom picking and had gotten lost on the same neck of woods. Students spent the rest of the seminar helping the police, calling out for the lost old lady. Once back at the university, students continued their work on designing the forest library. The whole group and to some extent the tutors felt a bit dubious about taking books to the woods. They couldn’t really justify why a library should even be in the forest, but also, how to solve the task from a practical angle – just imagine leaving the volumes in a humid, cold Northern forest in November, with no heating. And it is at this point that Birgit Õigus saved the whole project, figuring out that instead of reading in the forest, you should really read the actual forest around you.
Or you could think about it in another way – the megaphones are inspired by the search for the mushroom-gathering granny and symbolize all the calling out in the forest.
Q: How does this megaphones achieve to amplify the intricate and subtle sounds of nature?
Hannes Praks: I think from the physics point of view, not much happens. Basically, huge wooden pipes amplify some sounds at a certain angle, but there’s no incomparable cave or canyon effect. On a metaphysical level however, a lot happens. Parts of a broken space ship, scattered on a tranquil forest path stun with their monumental size and a shift in scale. When you reach the location, you do get the feeling that something has happened here, something you need to pay attention to. In truth, nothing has happened – birds are singing and the forest is rustling the same way as in any strip of forest. The megaphones simply make you more perceptive towards this ordinary singularity
Q: Why do you want to listen the sounds of the forest? What other uses have these megaphones?
Hannes Praks: The question leaves me in a predicament, indeed, what is there to listen to? Sure, the song of some birds is quite beautiful, but do we really need an installation for this? I believe that the biggest value of the megaphones is listening to your own thoughts via the sounds of nature. The location is right on the edge of Estonia, deep in the forests. Mobile reception is shaky there, which means there’s no means to keep up with the newsfeed of social media. Meeting your own thoughts can be a nice interlude or a frightful experience.
Q: Why did you decide to use wood to create the megaphones? is this material better to listen to the sounds of nature?
Hannes Praks: From the point of view of a design school located in Estonia, it was a very practical decision. 50% of Estonia is covered with forest. Wood is one of our few natural resources. Who else, if not an Estonian designer should be an expert in working with wood? Secondly, as I said before, the installation is a symbolic object, highlighting the sounds of the forest, as well as the silence. For that reason, wood as the main material of the forest, was a valid choice for us. I have to point out here though that the larch wood we used is not sourced from Estonia but from far away Siberia. However – since Estonians consider themselves forest people, and have moved into the lands we inhabit today from precisely Siberia, this really is a bit of a reunion with our intrinsic, allied, home trees.
Q: How does it feel to listen the sounds of the nature through this megaphones?
Hannes Praks: It is a different experience for every user and it is to a great extent linked to their previous mental tuning. The time spent to listen also plays a role. I believe every person will get their own unique listening experience on the spot. And I’m not being esoteric here, it is purely a question of focussing.
Q What was the inspiration behind the project?
Johanna Sepp: The inspiration behind the project was to create a different point of view to the regular ‘library-with-the-books’ and to bring into the forest features that people wouldn’t normally pay much attention to.
Birgit Õigus: For me, the inspiration behind this project was curiosity to really hear what forest has to say to us, and to see if is it possible to make an ‘audio library’ of those sounds.
Q Were there any challenges? How did you overcome them?
Johanna Sepp: I think the biggest challenge for us was transporting the objects out of the school yard, where we had built them, and to the forest. Our school building is located in the middle of the Tallinn’s medieval Old Town. All the streets in Tallinn old town are so narrow, and the truck and the building crane for transporting were both huge. It also didn’t help that the street we had to use to transport the megaphones out of the old town, was under construction. Luckily the crane driver was truly skilled and it all went well. The second biggest challenge was the actual building, because every detail of the megaphones is handmade, and the structure is not that easy. So all the woodwork part was a bit intimidating, and there was the good kind of fear, about whether all the parts are going to fit and match in the end. But everything went alright, because the drawings/blueprints were correct and we also managed to build really good group dynamics.
Birgit Õigus: For me, all of this project was a real challenge. Since it was my first time with this kind of a project, there were many obstacles to overcome. I have to agree with Johanna though, that the biggest challenge was transporting the objects from our workshop in the tiny Tallinn old town courtyard to their final destination in the forest. We overcame all the challenges with courage and help from each other and the tutors.
Q Will you be doing any more projects like this?
Johanna Sepp: I’m sure we will!
Birgit Õigus: I always prefer new projects with new challenges.
Q How will it inspire the rest of your work?
Johanna Sepp: It gave us the perspective to think not only about the idea, but how everything actually works and is put together. Also, it inspires to think about small things you wouldn’t normally notice.
Birgit Õigus: It made designing into unusual environments interesting to me. It will definitely inspire me even more to think out of the frame.
Are you still on the idea of creating a library in the forest from these megaphones?
Hannes Praks: Sure, but a library without books. Even if technically it might be quite cozy to sit in the cones and daydream with a favourite novel during warm summer months, it wouldn’t be ok to leave books into the megaphones from damp November to wet March. Thus, the library is open with just one book – the nature. The point of the whole installation is to draw attention to this, from human perspective endless core texts. It was this bright concept that convinced the Academy of Arts to select Birgit’s schoolwork as the solution for the project.
Do you know if these megaphones are being used to sleep in the forest?
Hannes Praks: I’ve lied down there only for a moment or two myself, but I do know what a powerful view of the forest with its slowly swaying pine tree tops opens from the wider end of the megaphone. I don’t know if anyone has already started their day with that marvellous view and emotion, but I’d recommend it to everyone. Even in winter, if your sleeping bag is good enough for the really low temperatures.
Q Is there any connection between the library in the forest and minimalist music concept from Arvo Pärt?
Hannes Praks: I’ve got a feeling that there is a map hidden in Estonian forests that leads directly into your own soul. The information is not hidden under a tree stump, but rather floats somewhere among the trees, approximately at the height of a few meters. This message is probably of divine origin of sort, and Pärt has likely touched upon it in his oeuvre. That hard-to-interpret info is however hard to read, even with the help of the megaphones, although the installation does direct your attention to the hypothesis about the possibility of the existence of such a message.
Q: Did you calculate the acoustic performances of the installation?
Hannes Praks: You know, honestly: we almost didn’t. Yes, we had an engineer consulting us, but acoustics was never the main focus of these objects. The goal was to create a site-specific, and in the case of this specific project, a conceptual piece of work. It was a game of symbols. The symbols we created can today be used also for shelter from the rain, or even spending a night in. But don’t they amplify at all, you ask? Of course they do. The sound of the woods on the southern border of Estonia has echoed across the world. The amplification came from waves in the info space, not as a result of acoustical mathematics. And this we really could have not predicted. We just hoped the students would create something that would touch people.
BIOs for QUOTES
Interior architect Hannes Praks is the head of the interior architecture department of the Estonian Academy of Arts and a beekeeper.
Architect Aet Ader (architecture office b210) is a member of the team of designers and architects that led the student group who designed and built the installation. Ader was part of the curatorial team of the 2013 Tallinn Architecture Biennale and regularly teaches at the Estonian Academy of Arts, contributing also regularly in international arts and architecture projects.
2nd year interior architecture student at the Estonian Academy of Arts, part of the group to work on the idea and build the installation.
Author of the megaphones idea, also a 2nd year interior architecture student at the Estonian Academy of Arts, part of the group to work on the idea and build the installation.